South Carolina dockworkers won a colossal victory this week. After facing nearly two years of unjust felony charges for defending their union jobs, Elijah Ford Jr., Peter Washington, Kenneth Jefferson, Jason Edgerton and Ricky Simmons – the Charleston Five – are all finally free, Edgerton and Jefferson as of Nov. 7 and Ford, Washington and Simmons Nov. 13.
They all pled no contest to a minor misdemeanor charge of participating in nonviolent “riot, rout, or affray.” Each paid fines of $100. The pleas of no contest are not admissions of guilt. The court threw original felony charges of rioting and conspiracy to riot imposed on them by South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon were thrown out.
“This great news will be heard on the docks, throughout the State of South Carolina, across the country, and around the globe,” said Kenneth Riley, president of Charleston’s International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 and foremost leader of the campaign to free the five.
“Here in South Carolina, we are standing up and proving that union members have a dynamic, vibrant voice,” Riley said. “We are promoting, loud and clear, the fundamental rights of working men and women.”
That vibrant South Carolina labor voice accomplished what many would call a miracle. These gladiators for justice in the South overcame a relentless drive by the most powerful extreme right political gang in the most conservative state in our nation.
This outfit was intent on jailing the dockers, four African American and one white, and burying their union with them. But that plan was foiled by a tireless crusade led by ILA Local 1422, whose call for solidarity won local, national and international support.
“As we toil on the docks of South Carolina, we don’t do so alone or in obscurity,” said Riley in his victory statement.
“We have learned that we are a part of something much bigger, something that spans oceans and bridges cultures. We are part of an international labor movement.”
That international solidarity was a significant part of this victory. Dockers and transport unions from around the globe raised much needed funds for the legal defense and pledged to organize solidarity actions at ports in their countries on the first day of the Charleston Five trial.
This put heavy pressure on the global maritime industry much of which does regular business at the Charleston port. That pressure most certainly overlapped onto South Carolina’s political leaders.
A recent international dockers conference in Los Angeles, representing unions from 15 countries, passed a strong resolution in support of the Charleston Five.
James Spinosa, president of the West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which hosted the conference, told representatives, “the shipping and stevedoring companies are key players in the new world economy, which put longshore and dockworkers right on the artery of their economy, making us a tempting target of their anti-worker, anti-union plans.”
If their economy is going to run without interruption by workers, he said, “they are going to have to get us first … we are seeing it now in Charleston, South Carolina, where longshore workers face imprisonment for the crime of defending their jobs and their jurisdiction.”
It was that knowledge of a bigger union busting plan that compelled Riley and Local 1422 to put up a picketline in protest of Danish owned Nordana Shipping when they brought in non union labor to the Charleston port. Nordana was testing the waters in the right to work South.
South Carolina’s Republican Attorney General Condon sided with the shipping firm by sending in 600 riot geared police to attack the 150 unionists who were peacefully holding the line, an attack which led to the ironic arrests of the five dockers.
Condon wouldn’t let go even after Riley had persuaded Nordana to stop using non-union labor. Instead, Condon had manipulated to turn the original trespassing charges against the Charleston Five into felonies and he ran his campaign for governor calling for “jail, jail and more jail.” Imprisonment of the dockers became key in Condon’s defense of right-to-work laws and his plan to rid the state of unions and workers rights altogether.
A united campaign changed that plan. After 21 months of pressure organized by ILA Local 1422, the national AFL-CIO, the South Carolina AFL-CIO, the ILWU, international unions and defense committees throughout the nation, the kingpin of the attacks was himself forced to withdraw from the case. That led to the unraveling of the prosecution and the dockers’ freedom only weeks later.
New information was revealed on the night before the first two dockers were freed when one of the major television stations in Charleston began to air a news piece which showed shocking footage of what really happened the night of Jan. 20, 2000, when police attacked the ILA picketline.
Calling the piece, “the untold story‚” the local public was able to view footage of ILA members leaving the scene peacefully when police began to shoot them with rubber bullets at point blank.
The footage of injured workers forced to the ground vividly reveals the injustice of this case from day one. The police are shown to be the clear aggressors.
The national campaign in defense of the ILA dockers will continue to organize a national movement for workers rights in South Carolina and the South in general. Also, still to be fought is a suit by Winyah Stevedoring Inc., the company that hired scab labor in the Port of Charleston.
They are suing the Charleston ILA locals, the local’s presidents, and 27 individual members for $1.5 million in alleged financial losses incurred because of the picketing against Nordana.
A national victory tour by Ken Riley and the Charleston 5 is being planned for the near future where major cities will hold celebrations and the dockers will kick up the new stage of the campaign.